“We’re a Church. We’re about mercy, we’re about forgiveness,” Katra said as an example. “Start from a place of ‘I’m sorry, we’re sorry, if in any way we hurt or offended you’.”
“We want to serve you. We want you here. It pains us that we sent the wrong message. What can we do to make it right?” she added. “We’ll do some adaptations or we’ll get some training so that we can better serve not only you, but many other families that have the same or similar needs.”
“Move forward in a healthy way, in a relationship, because that’s what we are as a Church,” Katra advised.
In catechesis, sometimes instructors should provide more time or require less work. Some parishioners benefit from a “multi-sensory approach,” that is hands-on, visual and auditory. Parishioners could need “sensory-friendly” items like fidgets or squeeze balls, noise cancelling headphones, and weighted lap pads to aid their participation.
There are also communication styles and adaptations for people with difficulties communicating. For instance, someone who is non-verbal uses “prayer hands” to indicate the words “Amen.”
Parish catechetical leaders and volunteer catechists should be offered training and resources, like professional growth days, conferences and newsletters.
While some parishes might fear they lack the resources and volunteers to serve parishioners with disabilities and their families, Katra offered hope.
“We just have to use our resources wisely. Seek out those people who are already there in front of you. Don’t think you don’t have them, you do,” she said.
You can’t respond to a call you don’t hear,” she added, saying church and parish leaders “have an opportunity to call forth people from the parish.”
In Katra’s view, candidates for confirmation, most often in their early teens, are at an ideal age and level of formation to be asked to be involved in parish ministry and to help them find where their gifts fit.
Parishes should ask young men and women to be a “buddy” for a parishioner and to help include them in systematic catechesis, retreats, Masses and other activities. The goal is to have someone to offer help as needed, but “not to do for someone what they can do for themselves.”
Young people who respond to serve often show compassion, empathy and patience and can go on to careers in social work, special education, pediatrics, or physical and occupational therapy.
“At the same time, every parish has those kinds of professionals in their community,” Katra said. She suggested inviting parishioners or others who are health care professionals to provide workshops.
If a parish announces that it is forming a ministry for people with severe disabilities or that it is looking for someone to help train catechists, Katra predicted, “many people would be happy to do it.”
“A special ed [teacher] could do that in their sleep, almost,” she said.
Accessibility to parish community events and meetings might include sign language interpreters and large print materials.
Some parishes are remiss in not providing ramps, assistive listening devices, or other assistance “because a need has not been presented.”
Parishes sometimes don’t provide training or resources to support catechists or educators teaching persons with disabilities or they don’t anticipate the need, Katra added.
Even when parishes make plans for persons with disabilities, they can neglect to make plans in consultation with them.
Katra warned not to use outdated or derogatory language, but also not to “exceptionalize” people with disabilities, like describing them as “angels” or “using them as a means of sanctification” rather than “realizing they are agents of evangelization in their own right.”
Every Catholic has the right to be educated in the faith, to be prepared for the sacraments and to receive the sacraments, and to “respond to God’s call,” she said. “All persons have gifts to share and all persons are capable of growth in holiness.”
From a Trinitarian perspective, God invites every person to be in communion, she added.
“We are all broken and our path to wholeness always includes community,” said Katra, who added that anyone could become a person with a disability, either through accident or age.
“We’re all one car accident away from rolling in a wheelchair,” said Katra. “We have no guarantee that our abilities will be with us in any given moment. Sometimes you’re born with something, sometimes you acquire it later in life. Some are temporary, some are permanent. Some are visible, some are invisible.”
“We all have strengths, we all have weaknesses. Hopefully we focus, as a Church, on our gifts and our abilities than other things,” she said.